Alfa Romeo intends to excite the senses with its Stelvio Quadrifoglio. It looks good and has the raw numbers but can an SUV really engage a keen driver?
There’s a notion that all-wheel drive vehicles are boring to drive. Unflappable grip at both ends makes them impossible to beat, both off the mark and out of bends. Driving all four wheels turned motorsport on its head, particularly rallying, while all-paw cars are often banned on track as 4WD is deemed an unfair advantage.
For today’s fast road cars with ever escalating power outputs, AWD is the only way to maximise/contain their potential. With electronics melding more seamlessly with mechanical bits, AWD machines are engineered to terminate bends. Drivers need not think much, just point them where you want them to go and mash the gas pedal; the electronics sort the rest.
These exploits can be awe-inspiring but more of a human touch would be nice. That’s what Alfa Romeo must have been thinking when it concocted the Stelvio. Its Q4 system acts more like a rear driver, utilising the grip of all four wheels only when necessary. And so it makes for an interesting drive as a true Alfa will always have an abundance of character.
This sense of interaction is simmering away in the regular Stelvio, but it’s set to sear in the range-topping Quadrifoglio. Like the hi-po Guilia, it gets the Ferrari-derived 2.9-litre V6, boosted by a brace of turbos to brew up 380kW and 600Nm of twist. The eight-speed auto is fettled to snap through the changes, and the rear diff is an active torque vectoring unit. There are three-mode adaptive dampers while all the systems have an overlord in the Chassis Domain Control, a central brain working to extract the most dynamic response from the hardware.
Everything’s a tad stiffer, lower and meaner for the Quadrifoglio and the beefy dual cast brake set-up is clearly displayed behind the thin spokes of the 20-inch burnished alloys. These elements combine to deliver a quick and engaging super SUV. The QF is fast enough to join the sub-four second club, utilising the most of having a diff at both ends to stick the power. But here too the AWD system proves a bit different. There’s no launch control yet with the Race mode engaged, the ESC is euthanised.
Stalling it up on the brake, the rear wheels will start to rotate as the boost is tapped, and that helps it scamper off the mark quicker. It’s not often an AWD machine will leave a few lines on the tarmac, but then this is not your average 4×4.
With a quick 80-120km/h figure, the Stelvio QF is properly fast, and a devil in the bends. Alfa loves quick steering and the QF has a very direct rack with little encouragement needed at the helm to have it diving into the bend. And things happen quickly with the V6 adding pace, leading to the front end starting to push wide in the first few turns attacked. Seems we were too keen, and too used to torque vectoring by brake keeping things tight.
Thinking about it, we recalled that a slower in, faster out approach worked better for the regular Stelvio, and it does here too. It’s essentially a rear driver, so it works your grey matter a tad more, and that’s what we like about it. Calming the turn in with a dab of the brake moves the weight on to the nose, giving the sizeable Pirellis a better chance to bite and turn the Stelvio.
Get that bit right and you can start thinking about getting into the gas. This brings the active diff into play, and then, if need be, the front wheels too, with up to 50 per cent of the go shunted forwards to help extract the Stelvio from the bend. You can feel the diff working away and in faster sweepers, it helps steady 1900kg of high riding Italian, the rear steering the SUV around the bend.
The helm informs dutifully when you’ve over-committed, and usually a gentle lift gets the front on line again. The steering assistance is light but works here, as long as you’re smooth, caressing it, rather than chucking it at the corners.
Adding to the challenge are the brakes. Alfa’s electromechanical system is super sensitive under foot, with very little pedal movement needed to effect heavy braking. It’s the one aspect we don’t like about the Stelvio; it’s hard to manage the weight transition with such snatchy brakes. They certainly work well, erasing the speed as effectively as the V6 piles it on, but more pedal travel would make things easier.
Full boost and the accompanying torque isn’t tapped until 2500rpm, and the V6 doesn’t really start raging until it’s sweeping past three grand. But then it swings hard up to 7000rpm unrelentingly until the auto snaps through another gear. This is all done in rather slick fashion, no jolt from the diff but a decent barp from the exhaust as the electrics make everything gel, the timing halted to ensure the gears mesh smoothly.
The ‘box you can leave to sort the progress, though those big alloy paddles just beg to be flapped, so it’s up to you really. The sound of the six is enigmatic rather than epic. It’s a tad hushed in Dynamic, with the flap not opening fully until 4000rpm, though it’s more liberal in Race mode.
Speaking of which, the drive modes are set, as in there’s no individual mode to mess with, although there is a suspension button, softening them off in both Race and Dynamic modes. Race is really for a tilt at the track as it’s super firm and all the electrics are switched out, whereas Dynamic is just right. This puts the dampers in a mid setting with enough give to take the bumps while enforcing an oppressive regime on roll.
Being an SUV, road roar is not too intrusive and there are no clearance issues. We happened to take both this and the Jag I-Pace over similar stretches of road, SH22 providing the stage, and while both impressed, the Stelvio genuinely engaged.
It gives you the chance to get it right, or wrong. And when you manage to make everything gel through the bends, it does feel good. The form of the Stelvio also does it for us. The QF looks more menacing on its larger alloys with its pumped out guards, but is there too much dead cat space in those arches? Ah, whatever, it looks pretty good from most angles while the interior gives off the right vibe too.
The QF gains a tasty slathering of carbon fibre trim and racier seats. These provide comfort as well as embracing you in the bends with both adjustable lumbar and side bolsters. Hard edges and plastics about the cabin are rare as well, though the gear lever could be improved upon. The infotainment system is far from the best you’ll encounter and the screen’s too small, but your phone will integrate easily.
There’s not oodles of space inside but there’s enough leg and headroom in the rear while the boot is a useful size too, if lacking in ultimate width. In Normal mode, the angriest Stelvio can also prove genteel. A slightly off-beat idle to the V6 makes it sound more like an angry triple. There’s torque from rest for traffic, and even below 3000rpm this gives the impression of having plenty of go.
The auto is smooth (save for the odd clunk into reverse), the steering light and that quick rack is also good for parking while the turning dimensions are okay too. Its rear camera is adequate, and while the side mirrors are decent (backed by blind spot minders), they combine with thick A pillars to obstruct your view at intersections, especially if you’ve sunk your seat low. On that, the driving position is sound even if the steering wheel could give a little more reach adjustment.
There’s not much to moan about on the ride front, though the stiff-walled Pirellis and racier suspension joints tend to transfer more of the road than the Ti version. There’s active cruise, which didn’t play up, though we note it’s subject to a recall.
And we found even it struggles with the brakes, the computer finding it hard to enact a smooth stop when coming to a halt. Despite the presence of cylinder deactivation and idle stop, the V6 is fairly thirsty. Expect urban gas use in the low-to-mid teens, and it’s V8-like on the lash. As for spec, it’s got most of what you’d want, though is light on tech compared with the big German three.
But then it doesn’t ask as much either, goes real hard, and manages to fascinate the driver in different ways. It’s an alternative, and sure to be a rewarding one for those who take the plunge.
|Model||Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio||Price||$144,990|
|Engine||2891cc, V6, T/DI, 375kW/600Nm||Drivetrain||8-speed auto, all-wheel drive|
|Fuel Use||10.2L/100km||C02 Output||233g/km|